Dr. Mary Wells is the dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo. An accomplished materials engineer, she chaired the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering from 2013 to 2018.

Wells is a founding member of the Trust in Research Undertaken in Science and Technology scholarly network. We asked her how we can strengthen trust in science and technology to positively advance society.

Opinion by Dr. Wells

mary wells

Dr. Mary Wells
Dean, Faculty of Engineering
> Trust in Research Undertaken in Science and Technology (TRuST)

The rising trend of “fake news” came to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic as people turned to social media channels to read and distribute information that often fell far short of offering reliable information or verifiable data. The unchecked spread of misinformation led to serious harm for many people, especially those who decided to forgo scientifically proven treatments to combat the novel coronavirus.

I doubt the engineers who first built those social media platforms were aware of how their products could one day be weaponized in campaigns of damaging misinformation. This is why we need to find a way to bridge the gap between the people who design and build new technologies and the public who use them.

Measuring trust

At the University of Waterloo, we looked at several surveys measuring how Canadians’ trust in science, academia, health, technology and government has changed over the years. Although there have been relatively few surveys measuring trust in science, the most consistent trend we’ve found is that trust in most institutions and individuals — especially the government — rose at the beginning of the pandemic but has since waned back to near pre-pandemic levels.

We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and let the trust that Canadians have in science and academic institutions continue to erode. That’s why we created the Trust in Research Undertaken in Science and Technology Scholarly Network (TRuST), alongside my Waterloo colleagues, Nobel Laureate Donna Strickland and Canada Research Chair Ashley Mehlenbacher.

TRuST is the first multidisciplinary research network of its kind in Canada and aims to combat the growing trend of disinformation to better understand why some people deny, doubt or resist scientific findings and explanations. We’re exploring how engineers, scientists and researchers can find ways of embedding trust into the technologies that they are currently building. We hope this can lead to further considerations of the intended and unintended consequences, of what those technologies can do.


Shaping policy to build trust 

It won’t be easy, but researchers and governments need to work together to think about how policy can shape how we consider future technologies and online tools to prevent the spread of damaging misinformation.

New pharmaceuticals must undergo rigorous study and clinical trials before they are brought to market. This measured approach could be adopted when considering introducing new technologies into the wild. Before a company launches a new technological product into the marketplace, it could undergo a series of trials with a small group of people to identify any unintended issues that could be addressed before allowing expansion to more people.

Another approach could be for governments, in partnership with industry, non-profits and academia, to introduce a series of ethical standards that all technology companies will have to adhere to if they want to make their products available to the public.

Although these suggestions may appear to go against the grain of conventional thinking, we need to begin this conversation of how to regain trust across science and technology. We have already seen how the risks of avoiding this direct approach have created an environment of distrust toward researchers, scientists and policymakers in the post-pandemic period. Tackling this challenge now is critical to ensure that future ideas and technological advances don’t suffer a similar fate.